There are nearly 200,000 “table side” restaurants in the United States today, a number that continues to grow. But like fast-food outlets, these dining establishments can be ticking time bombs when it comes to nutritional health. Government surveys find that the food you typically eat when you’re not home is nutritionally worse in every way than the food you eat at home.
Nearly all the chains have added healthier options to their menus—if you know how to look for them. You can also rely on these tips to help making eating out a healthier treat.
1. Ask for it your way.
Dining out is no time to be a meek consumer, notes Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and coauthor of the book Restaurant Confidential . “You need to be an assertive consumer by asking for changes on the menu,” he says. For instance, if an item is fried, ask for it grilled. If it comes with French fries, ask for a side of veggies instead. Ask for a smaller portion of the meat and a larger portion of the salad; for salad instead of coleslaw; baked potato instead of fried. “Just assume you can have the food prepared the way you want it,” says Dr. Jacobson. “Very often, the restaurant will cooperate.” These are the best restaurant meals for weight loss.
2. Ask to “triple the vegetables, please.”
Often a side of vegetables in a restaurant is really like garnish—a carrot and a forkful of squash. When ordering, ask for three or four times the normal serving of veggies, and offer to pay extra. “I’ve never been charged,” says dietitian Jeff Novick, RD, vice president of health promotion at Truth North Health Center and former director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Florida. “And I’ve never been disappointed. I get full.”
3. Ask how the food was prepared; don’t go by the menu.
Get an idea of the ingredients in your dish, such as salt, butter, and oil, and how much is used.
4. Order from the “light” entrées
on the menu. Most chains are required to list calories and nutritional content of their foods. Applebee’s, for instance, offers approved Weight Watchers options, First Watch has a Healthier Side Menu.
5. Beware of the low-carb options.
Restaurant chains have jumped on the low-carb bandwagon, offering numerous low-carb options on their menu. But low-carb doesn’t mean low-cal.
6. Ask to box half your entrée
before it ever gets to the table. Or split an entrée with your dining partner. A CSPI survey found that restaurants often serve two to three times more than food labels list as a serving.
7. Try double appetizers.
If there is a nice selection of seafood- and vegetable-based appetizers, consider skipping the entrée and having two appetizers for your meal. Often, that is more than enough food to fill you up.
8. Order a salad before ordering anything else on the menu.
Scientists at Pennsylvania State University found that volunteers who ate a big veggie salad before the main course ate fewer calories overall than those who didn’t have a first-course salad, notes Novick. These salad ingredients can help perk up your meal.
9. But remember: Salads shouldn’t be filled with unhealthy fat.
This is a vegetable course—keep it tasty but That means avoiding anything in a creamy sauce (coleslaw, pasta salads, and potato salads), and skipping the bacon bits and fried noodles. Instead, load up on the raw vegetables, treat yourself to a few well-drained marinated vegetables (artichoke hearts, red peppers, or mushrooms), and for a change, add in some fruit or nuts. Indeed, fruits such as mango, kiwi, cantaloupe, and pear are often the secret ingredient in four-star salads.r, both in terms of flavor and health. Just go easy on the butter and sour cream.